Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bemidbar  5767/ May 19, 2007

Shavuot/ May 23, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

King David, the Dogs, and the Lions

 

Dr. Gilead Sasson

 

Department of Talmud, Center for Basic Jewish Studies, and Safed College

 

There is a tradition that King David died on the holiday of Shavuot.   The story of his demise appears in two different versions, one in the Babylonian Talmud, the other in Midrash Ruth Rabbah, which comes from the land of Israel.   Below we shall try to explain the differences between the versions in light of the specific biases of the narrators.

We find one version of the story in Tractate Shabbat, in the context of a sermon by Rabbi Tanhuma bar Abba. [1]   Rabbi Tanhuma was asked if one may put out a lamp on the Sabbath in order to ease the plight of a sick person, on the grounds of piku’ah nefesh, i.e., a life-threatening situation.   Taking advantage of this question, he embarks on a sermon dealing with the value of life and the attitude towards the departed.  The text which he expounds is Ecclesiastes 9:4:  “Even a live dog is better than a dead lion,” from which he proceeds to tell the story about King David’s death. 

The story has two parts:   the first is a conversation between David and the Lord at some unknown point in time, in the course of which David attempts to find out details concerning the day of his death from the Almighty.   The second part tells of King David’s death and Solomon’s behavior after his father’s passing.   We are primarily interested in the second part of this story (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30a-b):

Every Sabbath David used to sit and study the entire day.  On the day that he was to die, the Angel of Death came to him but could not kill him, for his [David’s] mouth never ceased from his recitation.  He [the Angel of Death] said:  what shall I do to him?  He [David] had a garden behind his house; so the Angel of Death came and made the trees rustle, and David came out to see.  When David descended the stairs [to the garden] a step fell out from under him, he was silenced, and his soul departed. [2]

Solomon sent to the Beit Midrash [asking]:   My father has died [on the Sabbath] and is lying out in the sun, and the dogs of father’s house are hungry; what shall I do?  They sent back [an answer]:  cut up a carcass and place it before the dogs; as for your father, place a loaf of bread or a baby on him, and carry him away.  Did not Solomon put it aptly:  “Better a live dog than a dead lion”?

The verse from Ecclesiastes says that a dead lion is of less value than a live dog, and the story about David’s death serves to confirm this verse.  David is described as a Torah scholar who never ceased his studies, yet despite his greatness, after death he was like a dead lion, the dogs being more important than him.   Confirmation of this claim is found in the laws of the Sabbath that prohibit handling a dead person, since after his soul has departed he is no longer a human being, but simply a useless vessel.

The Carcass and the Corpse

The rabbis of the Sanhedrin were sitting in the Beit Midrash and were addressed by Solomon with a halakhic question:   what should he do with his father’s corpse, since there was a danger that hungry dogs would harm it?   Solomon first asked concerning his deceased father, who was close to his heart, and afterwards about the dogs.  The rabbis of the Sanhedrin, however, responded first about what to do with the dogs, and only afterwards about what he should do with David, thereby underscoring the message that the live dogs were more important than the dead king.   Also the substance of their answer indicates preference to the dogs over David; he must see to feeding the dogs, and to this end one may cut up a carcass on the Sabbath. [3]   The corpse, in contrast, is a carcass that may only be moved if it is made into a means for moving something else of which one has need. [4]   Thus, the order of the answers and the ruling itself clarify the verse about the value of a live dog being greater than a dead lion.

To sum up, according to the story in the Babylonian Talmud, a live person is superior to the dead since he can study the Torah and observe the commandments. [5]   The story about King David dying on the Sabbath gives the Babylonian Talmud the opportunity to convey this message, founded on earlier sources (the Tosefta, the Mishnah, and a halakhic discussion in the gemara).

Honoring a King

The story of David’s death in the Talmud can be found in Ruth Rabbah in a variant form.  Here we present the latter part of the story, what happened after King David’s death (Ruth Rabbah, ch. 3:2):

He died on Shavuot, which fell on a Sabbath, and the Sanhedrin came to pay a [condolence] call on Solomon.  He asked them, should he transfer him [the body] from a place [in the sun] to a place [in the shade]?  They answered him, “Is it not stated in the Mishnah that one may anoint it and wash it, provided one does not move any one of its limbs?”  He said, “The dogs of father’s house are hungry.”   They said to him, “Is it not stated in the Mishnah that one may cut up gourds to feed cattle and a carcass for dogs?”  So what did he do?   He took a woven cloth and spread it out over him to shield him from the sun.  Others say he called the eagles and they spread their wings to shield him from the sun.

The differences in the version in Ruth Rabbah are as follows:  1) The midrash from the land of Israel does not relate how David died.  2) In contrast to the Babylonian source, it notes that David died on Shavuot, which happened to fall on the Sabbath. [6]   3) The members of the Sanhedrin came to pay condolences to Solomon, a detail which does not appear in the story in the Babylonian Talmud.  4)   Unlike the Babylonian version, here the rabbis of the Sanhedrin first answer Solomon’s question about what to do with David’s corpse.  5)   The midrash cites an explicit mishnah (Shabbat 23,5) stating that one is not to move a corpse.   6)  Only after Solomon received the answer that it is forbidden to move the corpse did he express his fears regarding the hungry dogs.     7)   The story has a conclusion, namely the solution that Solomon found for providing shade over the corpse, since it remained outdoors.

These differences show that in the Babylonian version of the story there is a slight tone of disrespect for David’s corpse that underscores the message about the advantage of the living over the dead, whereas in Ruth Rabbah, David’s honor was preserved even after his death (the body is to be washed, it is shielded from the sun).   The Sanhedrin took the trouble to pay their respects and first they answered the question regarding treatment of David’s corpse. They did not suggest that the corpse be used as a base for some other object, a suggestion which dishonors the dead, and Solomon found either a natural or a miraculous way to shield his father’s corpse from the sun.

Which Story Came First?

It remains to be seen which of the stories is the original and which the later one.  We would suggest that the Babylonian Talmud version is the earlier one and that the version in Ruth Rabbah is later. [7]   In the midrash from the land of Israel there are hints that the story was a derasha on the verse in Ecclesiastes, “better a live dog than a dead lion,” even though this verse is not mentioned explicitly.   The first hint is that the dogs are not essential to the story, since Solomon’s first concern was how to protect the corpse from the rays of the sun, not from the dogs.   Even after he took care of the dogs he still had to find a way to provide shade over the corpse to protect it from the sun.  The second hint is that the preceding homily in Ruth Rabbah deals explicitly with this verse, negating it. [8]  

Is the juxtaposition of these homilies and the presence of the verse in one of them simply coincidental?   It follows from these hints that the verse from Ecclesiastes stood in the background of the story about the death of King David, both in Ruth Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, and that this verse was deliberately omitted from the homily in Ruth Rabbah.   In view of this, it seems that the homily from the land of Israel was familiar with the original form of the story – that which appears in the Babylonian Talmud – but had reservations about the tone of disrespect for David’s corpse.  These reservations were what led to the new redaction of the story with the changes mentioned above, in the process omitting the verse from Ecclesiastes, which did not fit in with the new redaction.



[1] For an another discussion of the story of King David’s death in the context of Rabbi Tanhuma’s sermon, see Joseph Heinemann, “On Life and Death – Anatomy of a Rabbinic Sermon,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 27 (1978), pp. 52-65.

[2] The Babylonian Talmud tells of the Angel of Death not being able to kill Torah scholars on several occasions because they do not cease their Torah study.   See the stories of the death of Rabba bar Nahmani and of Rav Hisda (Bava Metzia 86a and Moed Katan 28a).  For an extensive discussion of this motif in the story see Boaz Spiegel, “Madu’a ni’ana mal’akh ha-mavet et ha’ilanot be-ftirat David ha-Melekh?Shema’tin 150 (2003), pp. 286-311.

[3] This answer is based on the mishnah in Tractate Shabbat 24.4:   “Gourds may be chopped up for cattle, or a carcass for dogs.  Rabbi Judah says:  If it were not already dead on the eve of the Sabbath, it is forbidden since it was not what had been prepared beforehand.”

[4] The answer with respect to David is based on the words of Rav himself in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 43b):  It is said regarding a corpse which is lying in the sun:   Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel: One may turn him over from one bed to another.  Rabbi Haninah bar Shalmaya said, citing Rav:   One may put a loaf of bread or a babe on him and carry him elsewhere.”

[5] This idea comes up in a tannaitic source which apparently served as the basis for the story in the Babylonian Talmud, Tosefta Shabbat 17.19:   “Thus Rabbi Simeon ben Lazar would say:  even for a live one-day-old baby one may violate the Sabbath [to save life], and even for King David in his death one may not violate the Sabbath.  As long as a person lives, he performs commandments and therefore the Sabbath may be violated [to save his life].   Once he has died, he no longer performs command-ments and therefore one does not violate the Sabbath for his sake.”

[6] Ruth Rabbah preserves the tradition from the land of Israel, for which there is no parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud, according to which King David died on Shavuot:  Rabbi Yosse bei Rabbi Bon said:  David died on Shavuot, and all of Israel were in aninut [a state of mourning between the death of a person and his burial, during which relatives do not perform the Torah commandments] and so they brought the sacrifices on the morrow” (Jerusalem Talmud, Betzah 2:4, also Hagigah 2:3).

[7] For a discussion of the Babylonian influences on Ruth Rabbah, see Jonah Frankel, Darkhe ha-Midrash ve-ha-Aggadah, Vol. 3, Tel Aviv 1997, pp. 821-825.

[8] Ruth Rabbah 3:2:  “Hadrian, may his bones be pulverized, asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, saying:   ‘Am I not better than your rabbi Moses?’  ‘Why?’ he asked him.   ‘Because,’ he answered, ‘I am alive and he is dead, and it is written, a live dog is better than a dead lion.’”